20 April 2012


Avoiding confusion with the adventures of John Steed and Emma Peel is the only rational explanation we've had for the title Avengers Assemble being applied to the UK release of Marvel Studios' long-awaited superhero team-up, The Avengers. Fair enough, but such confusion isn't very likely. However, it's not a spoiler to say that some Avengers do assemble in this film. Blimey Charlie, do they assemble.

As the culmination of the last four years of Marvel's cinematic output, the film does not disappoint. The film is a living, breathing comic book/cartoon of a movie, and it's more than a bit fantastic. It's the kind of film in which someone can get struck by lightning and suddenly be even more powerful, with no apparent adverse effect. If there were ever any doubt that writer-director Joss Whedon was the right man for this job, consider it vanquished.
As we revisit SHIELD, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and their gang are working on harnessing the Tesseract, the mystical power source that was the main McGuffin in Captain America: The First Avenger, but the arrival of alienated Asgardian Loki upsets the apple cart a little. The Tesseract is stolen, and could bring about the end of the world if Loki can successfully open a portal across space.

With nowhere else to turn, Fury re-activates his Avengers Initiative, which has been discontinued by the SHIELD higher-uppers. He calls upon Tony Stark, (Iron Man) Steve Rogers, (Captain America) Thor Odinson, Bruce Banner, (the Hulk) Natasha Romanov, (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) to defend the planet. These volatile individuals are Earth's mightiest heroes, and perhaps its last hope.

To my mind, the only Marvel movie that made the whole build-up to this film work for it was Captain America: The First Avenger, by showing SHIELD at the time of its inception and making it a more useful part of the plot than in Iron Man 2 or Thor. Whedon seems aware of the criticisms, because we spend more of the first half hour with Nick Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye than with any of the established A-list of characters.

This is, finally, the culmination of all that SHIELD has been getting up to in the background, and the major calamity that it opens up over humanity's heads. In a very broad sense, you could say that the Avengers have to come together in order to clear up their mess, but each of those characters combusts with one another in the way that you'd expect, and in plenty of ways that you don't.

For instance, some might have feared from the trailer that the film would suffer from Wolverine syndrome, wherein the first three X-Men films all pretty much focused on him, rather than getting the team dynamic right. By the time that awful spin-off came out, it was like the fourth Wolverine movie, rather than the first. However, just because Iron Man is the probably most popular established character of the bunch, doesn't mean that this is The Tony Stark Show.

The way in which Whedon keeps an internal sense of every character's positions, motivations and goals is even better than I expected, and the cast are equal to the script's twists, turns and money shots. Consistent withThor, Hemsworth and Hiddleston are not sworn enemies, but conflicted siblings, whose first order of business is to talk out some of what's been happening to them since their last encounter. And then another combatant enters the ring and all hell breaks loose. There's a lot of that in Avengers Assemble.

Although I'd like to have seen Steve Rogers' awakening in the present day given a little more attention, I don't mind Johansson and Renner getting more to do at the expense of that subplot. The fact that the two are both Oscar-nominated performers should have tipped us off that Black Widow and Hawkeye wouldn't be the least developed principal for long. Evans still has some nice character development and more than holds his own during the fights, while Downey does what he does best, playing Tony Stark.

I think that the thing I love most about the movie, and I bet I'm not the only one who'll say this when the film is released, is Whedon's take on Bruce Banner. It helps that Mark Ruffalo gives the best performance of any of the three Banners we've had in the last decade, but he's so well-written and thought-out in this movie too. After all that gubbins about stress relief techniques in The Incredible Hulk, the reveal of Whedon's answer to Banner's control of the Hulk in this movie is both maddeningly obvious and intelligently construed.

While always endeavouring to avoid spoilers, I struggle to think of any way that I could feasibly spoil the movie for anyone. Unlike Whedon's other recent movie, The Cabin in the Woods, whose plot is really ludicrously easy to give away, there's just so much to see in this. Even if I told you about Loki's encounters with each of the Avengers, you'd want to see them, and enjoy seeing them even more than my telling.

What this does have in common with The Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, is the absolute insane fun that Whedon has with the third act. The film is so packed that it can run for 142 minutes and still feel quite brisk. A second act action sequence that might have taken ten minutes if we were looking at a solo hero movie, instead becomes the entire second act of the movie. And then, believe it or not, the third act battle royale manages to top it.

Whedon's flair for characters and dialogue builds the stakes to the point where the third act really means something. And more than that, he never loses sight of the civilian casualties of the city-whomping finale. The civilians, nameless though they may be, are key players in their own way. You always have a sense of who the Avengers are protecting, which certainly isn't something you can say of the three identical finales in Michael Bay's Transformers films. This is real blockbuster entertainment, toying with sentimentality while still retaining a slightly darker, more dangerous edge.

Avengers Assemble is fantastic fun, and it's clearly five-star popcorn entertainment. If it stands on its own merits after this initial exhilarating thrill, it might be difficult to pinpoint exactly why it's so damn good. Whedon's characterisation is only so good because the actors are on the top of their games too, and the film manages to deliver a sensory overload while remaining completely coherent and cinematic. The summer blockbuster season is off to one hell of a start.

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